NRDC Denounces EPA's Proposal to Withdraw New Arsenic-in-Tap-Water Standard; Group Says Move is Unwarranted and Illegal -- and Vows to Sue

WASHINGTON (March 20, 2001) - The Bush administration's announcement today to withdraw the new arsenic-in-tap-water standard is a craven capitulation to the mining industry and other corporate interests at the expense of the health of millions of Americans, said NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).

EPA's final arsenic standard of 10 parts per billion (ppb) would have lowered allowable levels of arsenic in tap water from the current standard of 50 ppb, an outdated standard established in 1942. The new standard was a result of more than a decade of scientific reviews, public hearings, and discussions with health experts and industry. The international standard adopted several years ago by the World Health Organization and the European Union also is 10 ppb.

"This decision will force millions of Americans to continue to drink arsenic-laced water," said NRDC Senior Attorney Erik D. Olson. "Many will die from arsenic-related cancers and other diseases, but George Bush apparently doesn't care. This outrageous act is just another example of how the polluters have taken over the government."

George W. Bush received more money from the mining industry during last year's campaign than any other candidate for federal office. Meanwhile, the mining industry last year shoveled $5.6 million into Republican Party campaign coffers, but less than $900,000 to Democrats. (See the Center for Responsive Politics' website.)

The Environmental Protection Agency said it withdrew the rule on scientific grounds. In a draft press statement issued today, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said, "I want to be sure that the conclusions about arsenic in the rule are supported by the best available science."

In fact, that work has already been done. A definitive 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) determined that arsenic in drinking water causes bladder, lung and skin cancer, and may cause kidney and liver cancer. The study also found that arsenic harms the central and peripheral nervous systems, heart and blood vessels, and causes serious skin problems, including pre-cancerous lesions and pigmentation changes. In addition, the NAS report and peer-reviewed animal studies have found that arsenic may cause birth defects and reproductive problems. NAS also found that children could be more vulnerable to arsenic exposure than adults.

The NAS report concluded that EPA's 1942 arsenic standard for drinking water of 50 ppb, established before the chemical was known to cause cancer, "does not achieve EPA's goal for public health protection and, therefore, requires downward revision as promptly as possible." NAS said that drinking water at the current EPA standard "could easily" result in a total cancer risk of one in 100 -- about a 10,000-times higher cancer risk than EPA would allow for carcinogens in food. NAS assumes people drink 2 liters of water a day over a lifetime.

According to NRDC, EPA should have lowered the arsenic level in drinking water to 3 ppb (see Arsenic and Old Laws). The agency, however, proposed a 5 ppb standard in June 2000 and then increased it to 10 ppb in January 2001 in response to industry pressure.

"What will it take to convince the Bush administration to do something about this enormous health risk?" asks Olson. "Congress told the agency to update the arsenic standard in the mid-1970s and again in the late 1980s, but it never happened. In 1996, Congress asked for the third time, making January 2000 the deadline for a proposal. EPA finally proposed the new standard in June 2000 after we sued the agency. Now we will be forced to sue again."